How the Japan-India alliance could redraw the political map

Through close collaboration with each other and with other like-minded Asian states, the two countries can lead the effort to build prosperity and stability in the region

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Highlighting the strengthening ties between Asia's second- and third-largest economies, Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, was the guest of honour at India's January 26 Republic Day celebrations, just weeks after the landmark tour of India by the Japanese emperor and his wife.

Mr Abe’s presence at India’s national day parade, which included a display of the nuclear-armed country’s military might, symbolised the emerging Japan-India strategic alliance. This partnership holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or America’s Asian “pivot”.

Since Japan and India unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” during Mr Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, their engagement has deepened at pace. The driving force behind their growing collaboration is China’s increasing assertiveness in Asia.

Through persistent nibbling and other strong-arm tactics, a resurgent China is seeking to disturb the territorial status quo. While most international attention has focused on Chinese incursions in the South and East China Seas, China has also been active along its long Himalayan border with India and in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Asia’s balance of power will be shaped largely by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. By linking these two regions, the Indo-Japanese entente – underpinned by close maritime cooperation – can ensure Asian power equilibrium and help safeguard vital sea lanes.

Japan and India value, according to their joint statement last weekend, "freedom, democracy and rule of law" and seek "to contribute jointly to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the world, taking into account changes in the strategic environment" – an allusion to the ascent of a muscular China.

India and Japan, natural allies strategically located on opposite flanks of Asia, are energy-poor countries heavily reliant on oil and gas imports from the Arabian Gulf region. The two maritime democracies are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and the transport routes for them. So, the maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is critical to their security and economic well-being.

This is why they have held joint naval exercises since 2012. These are just one sign of a shift from emphasising shared values to seeking to protect common interests. During Mr Abe’s visit, India also invited Japan to join this year’s US-Indian naval manoeuvres, known by their Indian name “Malabar”.

The Indo-Japanese relationship, remarkably free of any strategic dissonance or bilateral dispute, traces its roots to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century. The Todaiji Temple in the ancient capital city of Nara is home to Japan’s most famous statue – a gilt bronze image of Lord Buddha.

The statue’s allegorical eyes-opening ceremony in the year 752 was conducted by a priest from India in the presence of Emperor Shomu, who declared himself a servant of the “Three Treasures” – the Buddha, Buddhist law and the monastic order. Japan’s cultural heritage from India extends to Sanskrit influence on the Japanese language.

The Japanese imperial couple’s Indian tour in early December was a watershed moment in Japan-India relations. In the more than 2,600-year history of the Japanese monarchy, no emperor had previously been to India, although India has traditionally been respected in Japan as Tenjiku, or the heavenly country of Buddhism.

Today, Japan is a critical source of capital and commercial technology for India. Indeed, there cannot be a better partner for India’s development than the country that was Asia’s first modern economic-success story, inspiring other Asian states.

Japan, spearheading Asia’s industrial and technology advances since the nineteenth century, was also the first country in the non-Western world to emerge as a world power in modern history – a success that opened the path to its imperial conquests.

Since 2011, Japan has emerged as India’s largest source of foreign direct investment from a major industrialised nation. India overtook China a decade ago as the largest recipient of Japan’s official development assistance, which includes loans, grants and technical assistance.

For Japan, India is central to both its economic-revival and security-building strategies.

Mr Abe’s dynamic leadership and control of both houses of parliament is aiding his moves to return Japan to the right track. “Abenomics”, for example, has succeeded in weakening the yen, making exports more competitive and boosting corporate profits.

As part of his broader strategy of “proactive pacifism” to create a web of interlocking partnerships with countries in China’s periphery, Mr Abe has pushed for close, enduring collaboration with New Delhi. His Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, has said that Indians “see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast” Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

A growing congruence of strategic interests led India and Japan to sign a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2008, a significant milestone in building a stable balance of power in Asia. This joint declaration was modelled on Japan’s 2007 defence cooperation accord with Australia – the only other country with whom Japan, a US military ally, has a security-cooperation arrangement. The India-Japan security declaration, in turn, spawned a similar Indian-Australian accord in 2009.

The budding alliance between Japan and India holds the potential to redraw the Asian geopolitical map. Through close collaboration with each other and with other like-minded Asian states, Asia’s two main democracies must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of Asian Juggernaut